The 19 bloggers surveyed for this report represent many corners of the religion blogosphere—high traffic and low traffic sites, conventional blogs and web magazines, academic and recreational endeavors. They are:
- Richard Bartholomew, Bartholomew’s Notes on Religion
- J.C. Christian, Jesus’ General
- Frederick Clarkson, Talk to Action
- Rod Dreher, Crunchy Con
- Howard M. Friedman, Religion Clause
- Brad A. Greenberg, The God Blog
- Salman Hameed, Irtiqa
- Paul Harvey, Religion in American History
- M.Z. Hemmingway, GetReligion
- Sam Hodges, The Dallas Morning News Religion Blog
- Robert P. Jones, At the Intersection
- Bill McKenzie, The Dallas Morning News Religion Blog
- Benjamin Myers, Faith and Theology
- Daniel Schultz, Street Prophets
- Jeff Sharlet, Killing the Buddha and The Revealer
- Mark Silk, Spiritual Politics
- Lisa Webster, Religion Dispatches
- Diane Winston, The Scoop
- (Anonymous), First Things blogs
The following sections sift through their responses and use them to construct something approaching a cohesive insiders’ view of the challenges and rewards of blogging about religion.
4.1 Driving forces
When asked about their reasons for blogging in the first place, the bloggers surveyed didn’t put fame and fortune high on their lists.
Most of them simply saw a need. When he took emeritus status, law professor Howard M. Friedman began Religion Clause as a hobby. “It seemed to me that there was a need for a resource that tracked church-state, religious liberty developments from a lawyer’s perspective,” he says. Paul Harvey of Religion in American History, a historian at the University of Colorado, had noticed other academic blogs and, he recalls, “thought it would be interesting to try something similar for American religious history.” Jeff Sharlet, together with Peter Manseau, started Killing the Buddha in 2000 out of “contempt—to be honest—contempt for a press (and, for the most part, academe) that looks on religion as if it’s either innocuous spirituality or dangerous fanaticism, when most often it contains elements of both and a lot else besides.” For Benjamin Myers, it was simply “personal boredom—where I was living, there weren’t many like-minded people to talk with about theology.” Street Prophets began, according to Daniel Schultz, in the wake of the 2004 election. “It was clear that progressive believers needed to stand up and claim their presence,” he says.” Talk to Action and Religion Dispatches began with a similar intent to foster a new progressive religious voice. Often, bloggers simply notice an absence, have some of the necessary expertise, and get their projects going without much fanfare.
Not all begin out of personal interest alone. Brad A. Greenberg says he resisted the idea for years, but finally “relented” while working as a religion reporter for the Los Angeles Daily News. Soon, he continues, “I discovered that I not only enjoyed blogging but that I found it about as enjoyable as the long-form feature writing for which I entered journalism.” Mark Silk began Spiritual Politics as part of an academic project with colleagues aimed at covering religion during the 2008 election. Though the others ended up losing interest, Silk enjoyed it so much that he kept going. The Revealer, similarly, started when New York University’s Center for Religion and Media approached Jeff Sharlet about the idea of creating a blog to monitor religion in the press. The Dallas Morning News Religion Blog, explains Sam Hodges, came about after the paper curtailed its religion coverage. “Three of us who had worked on the stand-alone religion section were depressed that the section was discontinued, and we decided to compensate, at least in a small way, by blogging about religion.” For Robert P. Jones, it was a business decision; Public Religion Research created At the Intersection “as one channel (of many) for raising the profile of the firm and clients.”
The low cost and ease-of-use of blogging software enables those so inclined to get started on a whim. “There is essentially no budget,” says Friedman. And Benjamin Myers: “There is no budget or expenditure; I just do it as a hobby.” “We’re financed?” jokes Daniel Schultz of Street Prophets; “You could have fooled me.” Both he and Fredrick Clarkson estimate their budgets at around $1,000 per year, which they cover with advertising and small donations from readers. When a custom design and a paid staff is involved, though, as for The Revealer, Religion Dispatches, and others, the initial investment can be much more substantial.
Those with institutional affiliations—such as Spiritual Politics, The Scoop, and The Dallas Morning News Religion Blog—tend to have help from support staff for their site’s launch and subsequent technical issues. But many of those who go it alone with Blogger or WordPress seem able to get by. “I’ve just figured it out as I’ve gone along,” says Benjamin Myers. Some, however, including Clarkson and Salman Hameed of Irtiqa, wish they had more facility with the technology.
After getting started, any blogger has to find a source of motivation to keep posting day after day. Blogs are notorious for eating up their authors’ time and attention. “I have sometimes joked that what bloggers really need is a ‘12-step program’ to reduce their addiction to blogging,” says Friedman, adding: “I think most bloggers would find some element of truth in that.” Usually, what seems to keep them going—even to the point of addiction—is community. Friedman says that Religion Clause has been “sustained largely by the wide acceptance and continually increasing readership,” as well as his interest in the topic. Richard Bartholomew, too, says, “Support from other bloggers and reasonable hit-rates have encouraged me to continue.” All the more so on sites like Talk to Action, Killing the Buddha, Streets Prophets, and Religion in American History, which provide the basis, in part, for ongoing relationships among their multiple authors. According to Paul Harvey, blogging “seems to help create and foster a sense of community among people, mostly scholars and professionals I think, about the field of American religious history.” Adds Benjamin Myers, “For me, the most valuable part is this wider communal dimension.”
Ultimately, personal drive appears to prevail over institutional infrastructure. Even when brought into blogging by outside institutions, as were Mark Silk and Diane Winston, for example, bloggers cite personal motives as having sustained them. As Friedman’s joke suggests, the disciplines and habits that make one a successful blogger become, for some people, deeply ingrained and continually rewarding. Others, like Silk’s colleagues, lose interest quickly. It’s not for everybody. And even successful blogs, like The Revealer, have life cycles; after some years at the helm, editor Jeff Sharlet has at times put the site on hiatus and directed his energy to other projects.
As befits the natural eclecticism of the blogosphere, religion bloggers come to what they do with a variety of methods and motivations. That variety has created a remarkable profusion of content that takes on diverse subjects and styles. New intellectual communities have emerged and learned to persevere, often outside of traditional institutions, academic and otherwise. Thanks to an easily-accessible medium with so much capacity to connect people with common interests, the religion blogosphere constitutes a relatively self-organizing, self-sustaining collection of conversations.
4.2 Marginal or mainstream?
Blogs depend on mainstream media as source material for their commentary and as an authority to legitimate them. To an extent, the reverse is becoming true; religion bloggers are increasingly aware of and concerned with their impact on these traditional platforms.
“We are a major source of data and information for mainstream media,” boasts Robert P. Jones. “Our research was featured in over 200 major national news stories over the past year.” Howard M. Friedman says, “It is a two-way relationship.” On the one hand, he draws his content from mainstream press sources; on the other, because of his blog, he has been interviewed by reporters and radio talk shows as an expert on his topic.
Rod Dreher says, “I have been surprised by how many mainstream radio and TV outlets have found me because of my blog.” When his posts attract attention among popular blogs outside the religion blogosphere, like Andrew Sullivan’s The Daily Dish, it confers legitimacy on him in the perception of the mainstream media. Blogging has uniquely enabled him to interact with such media more than he otherwise could have. “It seems to me that because I’m far away from Washington and NYC in terms of my physical location, that it would be harder to notice me, but of course that’s not true in the blogosphere.”
M.Z. Hemmingway says of GetReligion, “We have a very close relationship to mainstream media outlets since the purpose of our site is to critique or praise their work.” Most of these interactions, though, are behind the scenes, in direct email exchanges with the reporters they write about, so the site’s influence isn’t always publicly visible.
Some have a more confrontational relationship with the establishment. Jeff Sharlet says, “The Revealer has been an irritant and, occasionally, inspiration to more mainstream media outlets.” It has been cited over the years by many large newspapers and broadcasters. On the whole, thinks Sharlet, the effect has been positive. “A significant minority of journalists have taken advantage of resources like The Revealer to complicate and deepen their understandings of ‘religion,’” he says. “That’s an improvement, I think.” Fredrick Clarkson, too, sees Talk to Action as “a critic of some of the MSM as well as a friendly consumer and frequent source.”
Clarkson also insists that his site has been able to do what traditional media couldn’t: its readers and commenters, he says, “have the opportunity to interact with featured writers and each other and to network. We have also helped to shape public discourse on a wide range of matters.” Jesus’ General, which is satirical in ways that mainstream news outlets can’t be, has been quoted in Newsweek, CNN, and a number of newspapers, in addition to winning an honorable mention in The Washington Post’s 2004 Best Blogs awards. “We provide a crucial complement to mainstream media coverage of religion,” says Lisa Webster of Religion Dispatches, “as we feature, in many cases, more sustained analysis of topics than a regular news outlet can offer, and a greater diversity of voices.” Her site is regularly mentioned in the religion sections of major national news organizations.
While some bloggers see the mainstream as the target of their work, others see it as extraneous—they’re up to something entirely different. But more and more, as blogging becomes integrated into the normal cycle of news-gathering and interpretation, we can expect bloggers to answer as does The Dallas Morning News’ Bill McKenzie: “We are part of the mainstream media.”
4.3 Creating a community, making an impact
Savvy bloggers have available to them the means to develop a quite sophisticated picture of their readership. Tools like Google Analytics and Site Meter allow one to know with high precision (and reasonable accuracy) who is visiting one’s website and what they are doing there. This includes data on visitors’ geographical location, computer system and web browser, duration on a given page, and how they arrived there. In addition, bloggers often embed surveys on their sites for their readers to fill out. Though participation is self-selecting, these can provide more specialized information such as education level, political views, income, or whatever else one might choose to ask about. Through social networks, such as a blog’s Facebook Group or Fan Page, one can browse a certain segment of one’s readers person by person. Finally, bloggers learn about their readers through the post comments and emails they receive. Given the interactive nature of the medium, most bloggers are quite attentive and highly responsive to their readerships. Noticing that certain topics garner more traffic and comments than others, for instance, might turn the course of the blog in that direction.
Most religion bloggers feel they have a sense of who their readers are. Usually, it tends to be a group that shares a relatively narrow set of interests. “Judging by the comments,” says Rod Dreher, “I draw folks like me.” Overall, since bloggers generally write on what they happen to be passionate about, this is the prevailing tendency. M.Z. Hemmingway and Diane Winston, not surprisingly, say that their readers are people interested in religion journalism. Sometimes, though, bloggers are surprised to find readers they weren’t expecting. Dreher, who describes himself as “socially and religiously conservative,” finds that “probably more than half” of his readers are liberals. And though Street Prophets is devoted to the creation of a religious progressive movement, Daniel Schultz has found that “not everyone is a believer, not everyone is a progressive.”
Nearly all the bloggers polled have some awareness of their traffic. Lisa Webster, for instance, follows Religion Dispatches’ traffic on a daily basis. While she does make sure to revisit topics and writers that draw a lot of attention, she says, “we also take care to feature less popular stories, and unknown writers, in order to broaden the discussion.” Rod Dreher’s traffic actually affects his paycheck from Beliefnet, which hosts Crunchy Con. For most religion bloggers, though, keeping track of traffic isn’t much more than a passing interest. They might look at it weekly or monthly. But regardless, they tend to insist that the traffic doesn’t affect the way they create content. Says J.C. Christian, the anonymous author of Jesus’ General, “I believe writing to keep or gain audience is suicidal.” Adds Brad Greenberg, “If I did, every post I wrote would mention Sarah Palin in a swimsuit.”
There are, however, other ways of measuring success than attention in the mainstream media and traffic data. Through posts, comments, and emails, authors and readers develop a synergy that the stricter boundaries of traditional media don’t allow for. Even with relatively little traffic and mainstream exposure, a blog can become a public forum for a cluster of scholars or others interested in a specialized topic. Such a blog’s influence therefore spreads through the readers’ students, books, and scholarship. It becomes an online think-tank or professional newsletter, its consequence potentially far outreaching its public visibility.
Taking account of the religion blogosphere’s impact has to be more than a matter of counting hits and clipping mentions in The New York Times. Those metrics have their place, but it is also necessary to look more deeply into the kind of community being developed around a site and the impact of those who participate in it. Blog communities are increasingly becoming fixtures of the contemporary public sphere, with an impact exceeding what the most obvious measurements might suggest.
4.4 Fit for a CV?
For scholars who blog, a task which often implies a considerable commitment of time and exposure to criticism, section 2 laid out the issues attendant on the academic status of their work. Academic religion bloggers tend to agree that, even if blogging isn’t true scholarship, it has a useful role to play. Paul Harvey affirms that blogging can be part of an academic career: “I count my work as ‘service’ on my scholarly reports; I think of it as a professional service to my field.” Robert P. Jones, who holds a Ph.D. in religion from Emory University, adds, “It can provide a window into academic work, and it can help promote academic work.” Salman Hameed, an astronomer who teaches science and religion courses at Hampshire College, calls blogging an academic “gray area.” But, he says, “Overall, my blog definitely contributes to my academic work. It helps me stay up to date with the topic as well as refine ideas.”
Benjamin Myers, too, says that his research and teaching has been enriched by the experience of blogging. In fact, he says, “My own institution also seems very happy about the blog—I suppose they see it as legitimately linked to academic work, since the blog has its own international reputation.” Diane Winston, a professor of media and religion at the University of Southern California, uses her blog as a teaching tool. “My students blog on the site,” she says, “and that has opened up intellectual collaboration and conversation.”
Others take a more skeptical tone. Jeff Sharlet, who edited The Revealer while teaching journalism at New York University, says, “I don’t think blogging should count as legitimate academic work. That’s not to devalue it but only to recognize that it is different than academic work, just as fiction is.” Rod Dreher agrees that blogging and academic work should be seen as different. “If one were to go at blogging with the seriousness of an academic,” he says, “it seems to me likely that the spontaneity and liveliness of the blog would suffer.” Howard M. Friedman even suggests, “Blogging is likely to interfere with attempts by a person early in his or her career to produce more traditional scholarship.”
Religion Dispatches has made a point, says Lisa Webster, of “cultivating scholar-contributors, who might not otherwise write for the public.” She doesn’t think that such writing does, or ever will, count as academic. But she does hope that academic culture will become more appreciative of scholars who take the time to do this kind of work as well. “We’re enormously grateful to scholars who consider that it is part of their vocation as educators to share what they know with an audience that isn’t parked in a lecture hall.”
4.5 What is missing?
“Of course,” complains Jeff Sharlet about the religion blogosphere as a whole, “it’s terribly, terribly dull. There’s very little great writing about religion.” Whether or not that’s true, it may be a healthy attitude. The religion blogosphere should be wary of falling into self-satisfaction—a dangerous posture, anyway, in an Internet always so eager to evolve and leave the self-satisfied behind.
When asked about gaps in the field, perhaps understandably, some bloggers didn’t come forth with a great many suggestions; after all, most of them started their blogs in order to fill the gaps they perceived. Fredrick Clarkson says, on the other hand, that there are “Too many to count.” But the group had a number of more concrete ideas as well:
- “High quality academic writing from known experts in the field is still missing.” (Robert P. Jones)
- “I’ve had a hard time finding good writing in English about Islam as a lived religion.” (Jeff Sharlet)
- “It seems to me that, just as foundations have been stepping forward to underwrite investigative reporting, so thought ought to be given to doing the same for reporting on religion.” (Mark Silk)
- “At least among theology blogs, there’s an overwhelming predominance of white males; and I think the bigger blogs only represent a relatively small variety of theological viewpoints. So it would be good to see some a lot more diversity.” (Benjamin Myers)
- “I wish that there were more and stronger progressive religious voices, but that’s just me.” (Daniel Schultz)
- “It is a shame that Christianity Today’s daily round-up of news links [by Ted Olsen] has stopped running.” (Richard Bartholomew)
- “Good blogs on the history and philosophy of religion, I think, are still missing.” (Salman Hameed)
- Perhaps it is time to “convene bloggers with a goal of enhancing and expanding their impact and outreach.” (Diane Winston)
- “I’d like to see more metro papers have meaningful religion blogs.” (Brad A. Greenberg)
- “David Crum’s Read the Spirit gives valuable attention to religion-related books, but I think there is room for a blog that would provide much more extensive coverage of that area.” (Sam Hodges)
Each of these suggestions could provide fodder for new bloggers in search of a niche to fill. They also respond to pressures outside the blogosphere itself.
The decline of the traditional press, particularly local and investigative reporting, raises the question of whether blogs could take up that mantle. Compelling arguments have been made that they cannot (see section 1.2 and section 3.6). But perhaps, with the sufficient funding that Silk calls for, they could begin to. Religion Dispatches, which has an ever-growing readership, has made efforts to address many of these concerns, including investigative work, book reviews, progressive voices, and academic authors. Still, despite support from foundation grants and university departments, it lacks the resources to fund the caliber of reporting that was a matter of course in the heyday of newspapers.
The issue of diversity, which Myers mentions, may also have its roots in broader pressures. According to Technorati’s 2008 data on the blogosphere, the majority of bloggers are affluent and male (see section 1.3). Recent religion scholarship on feminist perspectives and a range of ethnic groups reveal the insufficiency of a discussion dominated by white males (which happens to be what nearly all the bloggers here quoted are, though not by design). If, indeed, the blogosphere is to be taken seriously as a space for important conversation about religion, steps should be taken to bring a broader range of voices into dialogue.
Richard Bartholomew mentions the discontinued blog by Ted Olsen at Christianity Today’s website, which was a thorough collection of recent news and discussion on the web about religion. It was, in some sense, a blog in the classic sense, akin to the “Weblog” Jorn Barger began back in 1997. This “filter blog” format—useful links with minimal editorializing—provides something from which the punditry and heated comment threads of more recent blogging can sometimes distract. A one-stop shop that brings together content from around the religion blogosphere would help bring the many different conversations going on at various blogs into more direct interaction with one another. A project like this might be carried further by means of community authorship, as on sites like MetaFilter, Slashdot, and Reddit. There, anybody is able to suggest a link, and the community helps to determine which ones become featured most prominently. This helps prevent any one person, group, or perspective from gaining control of the portal. In the process, some of Andrew Baoill’s criticism (2004) about the kind of public sphere blogs tend to form (see section 1.3) would be addressed; it would provide a more equal playing field for new and diverse voices to be heard.
The key variable for the future of the religion blogosphere is the same as for the Internet as a whole: connectivity. In what ways will people interact, share ideas, form hierarchies, and gather social capital? There are certainly content areas that need to be filled, as the bloggers quoted above suggest. But just as important is the kind of infrastructure within which they work. There likely is, somewhere on the Internet, the great writing on Islam Sharlet is looking for, or the diversity Myers sees as lacking, yet they don’t have the means for finding it. While Web 2.0 brought vast, user-generated content-creation, the challenge of Web 3.0 will undoubtedly be finding ways to make all that information even more accessible, useful, and social—“taming the deluge of data,” as one observer puts it (Griner 2009). Even the nearly 100 blogs discussed in this report are more than most people can afford to keep track of on a daily or weekly basis. The bloggers’ suggestions—more diversity, more investigative journalism, more metro coverage, and so on—all amount to more blogs, more data to consume. The question then becomes: what to do with it all?